Nineteen Photographs From Cuba

By Yinka Elujoba

Photos by Claire McIntyre, Cuba, 2019

  • 15 March 2024
  • Issue 9

She sent me nineteen photographs from Cuba. They filtered in, over the summer, as though they were dispatches. Was it two photographs a month? I do not remember.

One evening, before she left New York, we were sitting on a bench somewhere in the backside of Brooklyn, where the trees go on waving. The day felt like a footnote to a passing summer. It was in the air—the aura of a thousand things in motion: the day, the decaying sun, the wind, the sea of leaves around our feet, the apparatus that binds lovers.

“I will send you photographs,” she said to me.

I didn’t know what to make of it. A photograph signifies absence as much as it signifies presence. What one doesn’t own is elucidated, and in all photographs what is lost as well as what remains take on another kind of material form.

“What will they function as then?” I asked. “A memorial?”

She shook her head as if in pity. We are all so untoward when we fall in love. “Nothing ever so fancy,” she said. “Just something for you to think about.”

When I got the first photograph I examined it at night, under a yellow light. The heat from the lamp on my fingers tracing the scenes in the picture, every portion of it emerging in a sequence, as if it were my own personal dark room. Vilem Flusser, that philosopher. He had claimed that every photograph contained a continuing scene. The photograph then as an interminable instant: always emerging, unraveling, unfolding. Can I say that with every glance, I was developing the photograph?

I wonder now why the first photograph she chose to send me was the image of a chair. The scene is immediately familiar to me: a washed-out blue wall in front of a doorstep, facing a street. To the left of the photograph, a dark hole leading into a room. The floor of the doorstep is broken and, in fact, nothing in the photograph seems to be in good shape. The chair, proud, uncertain, a cheap version of royalty. It has flower-shaped rings around the backrest and bottom portions. The rings almost make the chair beautiful. The floor is patchy with spots, and one might even be deceived into thinking of it as a kind of design. There is, to the right, a closed door with its paint peeling off. The flatness of this door contrasts with the depth of the dark room to the left of the image. The chair seems suspended. Nothing is at rest when one longs for a lover.

In the Yoruba tradition there is a messaging system known as the aroko. Built on a complex web of symbols, songs, proverbs, riddles from childhood, sound notes, puns and images, the most potent arokos are those encrypted so that only someone with a specific experience or sense of being can decode the embedded message. Most arokos were designed to travel distance, as if displacement itself were a semiotic entity.

When I began to receive her photographs I thought of them as arokos, containing something hidden in the frame. Not that she had claimed to embed any such hefty notations in the photographs, my concerns were simply a rumination birthed from private anxieties. Unable to contain myself, I wrote her to ask if there was, now that she had spent some time in Cuba, something she would like the photographs to tell me.

Her answer, when it came, was short, unequivocal—embodying the traits that had made me fall in love with her in the first place:


To recognize a beautiful woman you must begin from her knees. Then, the shape of her spine. The resilience of her jaw. Whether her lips tremble when she whistles. Her suprasternal notch where your dreams might reside. That silent curve above her hips…

What returns to me, when each of these photographs arrives in my inbox, is watching her take a photograph for the first time. I remember clearly: We were walking in Red Hook, not far from the water in Brooklyn, exhausted from a long talk at a FOAM event.

“The colors!” she screamed suddenly. “My God, the colors!”

She pointed at the buildings.

“Look! Nowhere else in New York is this colorful. Was it orchestrated? Did everyone on this street agree to do this?”

She was bringing out her camera as she spoke. I stepped back and watched her. She arranged herself: legs closed tight together, her back straight, her slender arms folded in front of her, the camera swallowing her face. When she moved, it was her neck only, slanting, searching for a perfect angle within her frame.

I memorized her stance and, perhaps, it was in that moment that I fell in love.

On our second meeting we had a fight. I’d complained about the exceptionalism thinkers attribute to photography in their criticism or attempt to establish it as an art form. I complained about how people spoke of the camera as though it were an autonomous equipment, making images only as it wills. I denounced the idea of the camera as a “black box,” because it meant that what happens within it may be construed to be unknown, and its innards considered uncharted territory. I agreed with her that claims needed to be made to carve out a space for photography as a medium to be taken seriously. I however pointed out that although there is the human tendency to embrace anything that posits a mystification around an art form—since this implies that such an art form occurs at some elevated plane—we know of course that the camera is a machine manufactured by humans themselves. I posited that this meant every camera’s method of responding to light (and therefore darkness) is designed to specifications those same humans deem fit. My aim was not to dismiss the sophistication of what happens inside the camera, the camera after all requires more technicalities than the pen for example. Yet, just as it is ridiculous to be entirely shocked at the outcome of any processes by some artificial intelligence, I thought it was also delusional to expect whatever image the camera makes to be something entirely unprecedented. When I had finished with my rant she simply drank her coffee and said:


What is the difference between a memory embedded in a word and one embedded in a photograph?

The word, fromage, French for “cheese.”

“The ‘r’ has to sound right, has to sound French,” she said to me, both of her index fingers on my lips.

Were we at the Punjabi deli on Bergen and Bond when she felt the sudden need for me to memorize the word? She had burst out in French to the big man behind the counter.

“Où est votre étagère pour le fromage?”

The man, confused but composing himself, waved his hands unknowingly.

“What are you saying to me? I don’t speak French!”

She realized that for a minute she had forgotten she was in New York and not Paris.

“I’m so sorry. I was asking where to find cheese.”

The man pointed, a slight twitch on his nose—he was still unconvinced that she hadn’t been playing a prank on him.


A word that means nothing by itself, yet now interwoven with the memory of watching her demonstrate the O shape one’s mouth must make to successfully pronounce the “fro” part of the word.

“The O is not a complete O,” she said. “It is an O that points forward, an ellipse, not a circle.”

I tried again, but I never got past the “r.”


When, finally, she sends me a picture with someone in it, I recognize, not the man but the shape of his mouth. It is also then that I recognize that to pronounce “fromage” correctly one must pretend to be blowing out smoke, as if from inhaling a cigarette.

One night, in the fall, we were locked in each other’s arms, hiding under a quilt she had stolen from her grandmother in Paris. The night seemed hollow, holding promises but delivering none. Through the window, we watched snow gather over everything on the street.

“Did I ever tell you my grandmother was a teenager during the Great War?” she asked.

The Great War was how many from that time referred to the Second World War. Her grandmother, a teenager at the time her village was attacked by the Germans, had hidden under a pile of quilts when the raid began. She was so shocked at the staccato of guns she passed out for days.

“I still tease my grandmother for being such a sissy.”

When the teenage girl finally awoke the village had been destroyed and deserted. She was lucky the German troops had decided only to destroy and not to occupy.

“You’d probably be under someone else’s quilt right now if my grandmother had been found.”

The teenage girl, saved by quilts, became obsessed with them. She worked on quilts every day after the war until her hands bled. Then a French soldier who had lost his left arm in the war returned and married her.

“Now that I think about it, perhaps I inherited my grandmother’s taste in men. He was tall and rough in a handsome way. And of course, he couldn’t carry my grandmother in any of their wedding pictures!”

The one-armed soldier, although weak physically, had a strong mind. He made his wife’s obsession into a business. Finishing a quilt is taxing not just on the mind but also on the body. At first they sold only one quilt a month. Then he bought her a machine.

Production grew. The business grew.

He thought it was necessary to expand. He employed people to work with her. He incorporated a company in her name. People with other skills joined the business. The company began to sell quilts and blankets and other types of beddings.

“Now there is my grandmother’s signature in several beds. Including yours.”

“I have no great war stories to tell,” I said.

“Isn’t loving me war enough?”

I felt my body become warm under the quilt and decided Ondaatje was right: one’s body is used in love as it is in war.

She wrote to me and said, “Do you remember our last morning together? I spent time studying your eyes. They’re quiet. Stable. They never give anything away.” At the bottom of the message she appended a photograph.

Who has left?

Or who has returned?

There is no one accustomed to leaving who does not accompany it with a ritual. For me it was, for a long time, the sudden getting up from beside her before sunrise, a hurried bath, then returning to her bedside, wearing my cuff links, her eyes peeking out from under the blanket, watching me.

“Don’t go,” she said once, without rising from the bed, without opening her eyes.

I watched the fan whirl across the room for a while. Then I removed my shirt and returned to her side.

Placing words beside a photograph is precarious business. Captions are, unfortunately, too potent, too believable. Words immediately limit the existence and therefore meaning of images. The boundaries of interpretation for images are less finite than they are for words. This is why those in the enterprise of such meaning-making must recognize how often their work is subsumed in failure. True, one of the easiest ways to create affect is to set up a relationship between words and images. But how close have such associations come to ending up simply as postcards?

Imagine a photograph showing a partially visible room. An empty bed, made of three mattresses arranged on each other. On the wall, a framed image of a boy with five different gestures. Is this room dark? Is this room small? A towel, neatly folded, sits on the bed. Such invitation, I am certain, can only be for an arrival. Every day a new postcard, yet every day my love remains an open door.

She wrote to me and said, “I have been looking at the men in the area where I live now, here in Cuba. They are mostly kind, happy, diverse racially, but they think of themselves as one. They fight amongst themselves all the time they but treat me with respect. Something else that binds them all, I think, is that they’re always pausing for a smoke.”

I would like to declare that I wasn’t jealous. Not of the beautiful man standing in the center of this photograph, smiling, his beard full, his eyes dim. Not of his beautiful shirt, half-tucked in. Not of the beautiful tattoo on his thick chest. Not of his skin, so glorious in what seems like a beautiful night. Not of the fact that when this photograph was made he was happily beholding her presence, the embodiment of every beautiful thing that might never again be mine.

One morning, after what seemed like eternal moments of longing, I phoned her, if perhaps I might at least recover what it meant to hear her voice. She was never an early riser; she always began her day only when it was past 11 a.m.

“Nothing beautiful ever happens before 11 a.m.,” she said once, turning down an invitation to breakfast with a famous artist. It was around 5 a.m. when I called. The phone rang and rang and rang. But on the other end there was no response.

Tattered, desperate, I continued to call, fueling the cracks in my heart, the muddy waters of desire.

What is the most beautiful memory I have of her? Is it not a question too weighty for a photograph to answer? Surely all photographs, by nature, are perfunctory documents. But sometimes a photograph might be the site of an encounter. Like a woman’s leg, in sudden view, from inside a shadow. Intensified by the absence of anyone else on the street, the leg becomes even more beautiful. This is how I remember that evening when she came in from the rain, hair wet, soft, lavender-like; the dog-earth crease around her eyes; her lips immediately on mine. Desire, if delayed, is not desire.

In 1851, the King of Ijebu sent an aroko to Oba Akitoye, King of Lagos. It was on the occasion of Akitoye’s restoration, after the British had finally succeeded in deposing Oba Kosoko, who had been a formidable enemy. The aroko arrived in Lagos days after it was sent: a string holding carefully arranged cowries, shells, seeds and kernels.

Ten years after, the British who had helped Akitoye regain the throne annexed Lagos, entirely crushing the king’s power. Thirty-six years after, the aroko itself was stashed away in a corner at Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford. Placed on a red background, the aroko was said to have been a “peace and goodwill message.”

I was thinking about these things when she wrote me again.

“Do not think that I cannot speak. When I arrived here I knew I was loved by the people around me but they made some lines clear: I was an outsider and must constitute myself as such. Centuries after their ancestors were plucked from their land, they have become a wall. I understand now the wariness of those from whom things have been taken away. And I respect their right to remain mysterious. Do you not know these things? Why do you go on searching? Love gives but it gives less than it takes away. You know about leaving more than I do, so embrace my displacement. There are things about me that must remain unknown to you: I made acquaintance with opacity to protect myself. Peace to you, and a photograph.”

Now has my heart become a place of instant electricity, I bow to the miracle of affection. I carry myself through limpid days, through tired streets. I search for the color of love. I visit the river often. I watch ferries come and go. The water remains constant. I protest the dislocation of my love. I know the weight of dismembered fires. How could I not? There is no hell where my name is not mentioned.

Come to me love.

Come to me.

Come to me when all I am left with is a woman’s name.

Even now I believe, like photographs, all beautiful things exist in an infinite dimension. Still, I am but a man of small desires. Can I help it if, after all this while, all I long for is just one photograph?

Yinka Elujoba is a Nigerian writer and art critic living in New York.

Photos: Claire McIntyre, Cuba, 2019. Courtesy the artist